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Repairing a Deere 317
48" Mower Deck

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John Deere 317 Lawn and Garden Tractor

deere 130
This little lawn tractor, a 1986 Deere model 130 now resides in North Carolina with my son.


My association with John Deere lawn and garden tractors began on December 29, 2007 with an ad in the local Craigslist for a 130 lawn tractor that had starting issues.  The price was a little high, but I figured there was wiggle room, so we packed up the pick-up for a day trip and were off to take a look at it.

It looked pretty good for a 80s lawn tractor.  The paint was original and a bit worn by the foot wells, but it looked like normal wear and tear to me.  The engine was a bit dusty/dirty, but no signs of drastic oil leakage.   It had a brand new battery, but wouldn't crank over.  I made sure that the engine wasn't seized and decided that I'd take a chance.  Would he except $200?  We shook hands and I gave him a couple benjamins.

I looked for a spot where we could load the Deere by decreasing the distance between the tailgate and ground.  I backed the truck up to a steep V shaped swale and my son and I lifted the front wheels of the tractor a couple inches on the the tailgate.  A few moments later the rear tires were on the tailgate and the Deere got pushed into the bed.  Off we went to eat some lunch.

Once we got the 130 home and into the garage, I followed my gut feeling and gave the starter a whack with a compothane mallet and gave the key a try.  She cranked right over.  A little fussing with the throttle position and she was running.  "Needs starter brushes," I told my son.  "Should be an easy fix." And thus began the journey.  If I had known how the journey would progress and the satisfaction I have received from working on these well built little tractors, I would have started sooner.

I ended up cutting the starter's commutator on my lathe and replacing one of the brushes with a used one I had in the motor parts box.  It was Sunday and the Deere dealer wasn't open.  It's been almost 3 years and the 130 is going home with my son when he comes over for Thanksgiving.  In that 3 years is has been a great little addition to my yard maintenance tools and aside from one front wheel bearing getting rough enough to replace, it has been a perfect house guest and the used starter brush is still hanging in there.

What I didn't plan for was getting a case of Deere hunting fever.

Shortly after I bought the tractor, I joined the John Deere Garden Tractor Club on Yahoo.  As is usual for me, I started by reading the old posts and worked my way current.  By the time I was done, I wasn't quite so ignorant about lawn and garden tractors were and what they weren't.  I learned that like many things in this day and age, the older stuff was made a heck of a lot sturdier than the newer stuff.  I also learned that there's a certain amount of -- how should I say it -- looking down the nose at the Deere lawn type tractors sold by the home improvement stores.  Many of the folks in the group own and restore only the heavy duty older Deere
garden tractors.  My 130 in definitely not in this category.  In fact, when it was new, it was one of the least expensive lawn tractors Deere made at $1899.00.  However that was 1986 dollars.  A typical Ford or Chevy family car was $9200 and the median income was $22000 per year.  To compare a 1982 Deere 317, it listed for $4199.00 plus the 48" mower deck was an additional $550. In 1982 the average family car was $8000.   Not to say that as lawn tractors go, the 80s 1XX series are not good tractors, by my criteria, they are.  They just aren't as sturdy and don't have the power and features of the larger Deere garden tractors.  The distinction of lawn as opposed to garden tractor seems to be whether it is stout enough to use accessories to till the earth.  If you're interested in more information on the features of different series of Deere small tractors, it can be found at www.weekendfreedommachines.com on their model info page. 

The more I read, the more I learned and I began thinking about getting a Deere that I could have some fun with. I have always be a stick kind of guy when it comes to cars.  I've only owned four automatics out of 30+ cars.  Even my Dodge 2500 with the Cummins diesel has a stick.  That said, there is a reason not to go with a manual transmission on a Deere garden tractor.  That reason is hydraulics. While most of the older 100 and 200 series are manual, the 300 and 400 series have a Hydrostatic transmission.  The hydro transmission serves double duty by not only powering the tractor, but also allowing the use of hydraulically operated accessories.  It was the hydraulic capability that made getting a garden tractor so enticing.  A blade, plow and tiller would be great additions.  Yeah, you could do all of this stuff manually, but hydraulics are just too cool.

By early 2008, I was already keeping an eye out for a Deere 318.  This model was the redesign that happened after Deere put a Kohler engine with splash lubrication of the crankshaft journals into the model 317 and lots of them suffered severe engine damage due to lack of lubrication.  The Deere name was tarnished a bit and even though the 1982 model year 317 started incorporating a series II Kohler motor with pressure crankshaft lubrication.  The 317 was stigmatized.  The 318 was a new design and Deere pulled out all of the stops.  The 318 even came with power steering.  Not a power assist like the early 400 models with their manual steering gear and all its sloppiness attached to an external assist valve on one side and a power steering ram on the other, but a true industrial type power steering.  The power steering of the 318 has at least half as many possible wear points as the early 400 series which could save you from excessive play in the steering.

So I watched Craigslist and Ebay and every other venue I could think of.  And I watched some more, but darn few 318 tractors were for sale in Northern Virginia.  Fast forward to 2010.  My wife Susie and I are ready to move.  We've been ready for quite some time, but one thing or another kept us in Gainesville.  Around the beginning of the year we got motivated and started sprucing up the house.  We spent some time and remodeled the kitchen, redid the master bath, repainted the interior and replaced some of the carpet.  The rest of the carpet is on the list, but not until we get the furniture out.  We're actively looking for a larger property on weekends.  This gave me the final push I needed to get a larger tractor.  I still wasn't seeing many 318s and those I did see within driving distance were no deals, so I started broadening my search a bit.  I started looking at 316s (pretty much the same as the 318, but without power steering and usually with fewer hydraulic ports.  I also started looking at 317s and 400 series.  After reading up on the 317, I came to the conclusion that it would be a great tractor if I could find one with a series II engine and could add power steering.  The 400 was not as high on my list due to the strange hybrid power steering and the fact that it wouldn't work on my current yard due to its wider track.  I have only 51 inches between one cherry tree and a fence.  The model 400's popular 60" mower deck wouldn't make it, nor would the smaller 54" deck.  The 48" deck of the 314, 316, 317 and 318 would just make it through.

deere_317_side_before
deere_317_front_before
Before - 1982 Deere 317 - Side
Before - 1982 Deere 317 - Front

After looking at a few 316s and a 400, a 317 caught my eye.  Yeah, the dreaded 317.  Actually they were very nice tractors, but the early ones had less than bullet-proof engines.  I have always been a bit of a sucker for maligned vehicles.  I got into the automotive trade by rebuilding a 1972 Mazda Rx2 engine that had lost its water seals.  I loved those cars.  If you built the motor to tighter specs than called for by the factory, they didn't loose the seals as quickly and even with blown water seals, you could drive them for years by leaving the radiator cap loose.  But I digress.  I went out to look at the 317.  As I pulled into the driveway, I saw it.  It looked very good from a distance.  However, as I got closer, I saw that the seller had used rattle cans to spray over everything; dirt, rust and all.   Upon closer inspection, I saw that under the paint, the sheet metal looked pretty solid.  I noticed new bolts holding much of the sheet metal on.  He mentioned having a 317 parts tractor and swapping freely from it. 

One of my pet peeves is sloppy steering.  I cringe every time I test the steering play on the less expensive tractors in the home improvement stores.  Too much slop.  Too vague.  The JD 130 was better in this regard and with its light weight, the steering feel was quite acceptable.  This 317 had about 20° of play before the wheels began to turn.  It would need to be fixed, but wasn't a deal breaker as my intention was to eventually cobble up a power steering retro-fit.  I figured that for the time being, performing a steering gear adjustment and replacing a bushing or two would probably get this one into the acceptable range.  Mechanically, it looked original and not too abused.  The bolts for the engine sheet metal had been painted over, but they all looked of the same vintage.  All of the breather hoses and engine controls were intact.  It appeared to have the original engine and after a call to my wife to check on the internet to make sure that spec number 24301 was a series II and not the splash lubricated motor, I asked him to fire it up.  I knew it had been run earlier, so this wasn't a test of cold starting ability, but it started and sounded good.  I asked him to creep it forward and then back and watched for signs that there were drive-line issues.  No whine, no clunk, nothing unusual to be seen or heard.  Having never driven a hydro tractor, I decided that a test drive would tell me very little. I watched him raise and lower the hydraulic lift for the deck and listened to the deck run.  It seemed a little noisy, but that was compared to my 130 and I didn't know what was normal.  He said he had replaced some of the deck bearings so I assumed that it was just a little louder than the 130.  (Not quite true.)  We struck a deal and I was a 317 owner.  This time I had brought my loading ramps and with a little help from the seller, we got it loaded into the bed of the Dodge.  That was one tight fit, but with the deck in the up position, it just made it. 

When I arrive home, I was faced with learning how to smoothly operate the hydrostatic transmission while backing it down the ramps and on to the lawn.  Not a chore for the faint of heart.  The first thing I learned was that the brakes are not strong enough to overcome the power of the tractor.  Braking is better accomplished by feathering the hydro lever.  I got it off the truck without incident, but I had some luck on my side.  I took her up to the garage and gave her the once over.  I checked the fluids and greased all of the fittings I could find, then took her out for a test mow.  Way too much play in the steering and the steering was really hard to turn with the tractor not moving.  Yes, I'm going to need power steering.

Unlike the 130, the 317 mower deck was out of adjustment.  It left the grass low on the left and high on the right.  I had been given the original owner's manual and read the section on adjusting the deck height.  It looked simple enough.  An hour into the job, I realized that something wasn't right, but I couldn't really see how the deck was supposed to work.  It seemed to be sitting on an angle and tilted too high in the rear.  No amount of adjustment was getting it any closer to level.  If I recall, the spec is 1/4" higher in the rear and I had an inch.  I was able to get the deck leveled from side to side and it cut a lot better, but still not quite right.

deck_top.jpg
deck_bottom.jpg
The previous owner was fond of the rattle can
The blade on the right needs new bearings
mowing_rocks.jpg
painted_grass.jpg
This blade must have mowed some rocks
Why would you paint the grass clippings black

Not one to easily give up, I pulled the deck and removed the belt covers and blades.  My first impressions wern't too positive when I saw that the previous owner had spray painted  everything in sight.  The rust spots on top of the deck were yellow and the grass clippings below were black.  This didn't instill a lot of confidence that whatever work that had been done was done with any great amount of care, but I did see that two of the three bearing towers had been out before.  Strangely, the third hadn't (but obviously needed it) and had a broken tab where one of the three bolts held the tower to the deck.  The broken tab wasn't a fresh break and the (wrong) bolts on the other towers told me that the other bearings had been played with recently.  Why would you replace two and not three?  I spun each of the three blade axles.  The two that had been worked on felt OK.  Not as smooth as they might have been, but not bad.  The one with the broken tab was horrible.  The idler bearing on the top of the deck was darn near seized as well.  I tried to turn the nuts to remove the bearing housing and found why he hadn't gone further.  All three bolts were frozen. 

Soaking the bolts in PB Blaster didn't help loosen them, so I cut a slot in each nut with an abrasive blade in my Dremel tool and used a cold chisel to break them free.  I would need a new bearing tower and bearings.  The idler pulley is a strange design.  The sheave is made of two halves riveted together with the bearing captured inside.  I figured I could shear the rivets and pull it apart to replace the bearing.  I drilled out the rivets, but the halves wouldn't separate.  A check of the Deere parts site showed the idler as an assembly with no replacement bearing, so I ordered one of those too.  I also ordered a repair manual on CD.  I have owned a factory manual for darn near every vehicle I have ever owned.  Having been a dealership mechanic, I don't consider the aftermarket manuals a good investment, even at their reduced price.

The three blades from the deck were supposed to be new, but looked like they had been used to mow rocks.  I spent an hour or so using a file to put an edge on them.  A trip to my local Deere dealer got me a new tower and idler.  I also picked up some other items that looked like they needed replacing.  The red ball on the hydro lever was a bit chewed up and the ignition switch electrical spade connectors were corroded to the point of imminent failure.  I wasn't too impressed with the new hydro ball.  It looked like the molds hadn't quite aligned when it was cast and there was a thick line of flash around the circumference.  I used some 1000 grit paper to remove the flash line and buffed it smooth again.  Better, but not worth what I paid for it.

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